Monday 11th July 2011 Guissény, Brittany
This evening we are back on the north coast staying at the municipal campsite. We could have returned to Joël but as we'd said we would be back tomorrow morning and his other visitors are still there, we decided to try out the campsite, situated amidst the dunes surrounding the sheltered harbour of le Curnic where Joël keeps his fishing boat.
Last night, on the pebbled beach it was still daylight at midnight. I know as I found it all so magical I couldn't get to sleep, lying in bed watching the little boats bobbing on the silver water of the bay, and the black silhouettes of the archipelago of rocks and small islands in the Gouel de Brest. Along the shoreline on the far side of the enclosed bay, the lights of Brest and the outline of the cranes of the naval dockyard contrasted with the immediate peace of our surrounding, where the only sound was the gentle lapping of the sea along the shoreline. Eventually though, I was finally overcome by sleep, so I don't know whether it ever actually got dark. Ian stirred around 4.30am and dawn was just breaking then.
This morning the sun was up long before us but without campsite facilities of electricity, hot water and showers we were soon heading through the winding lanes of the little peninsula back to Plougastel-Daoulas. Making our way towards Landerneau we stopped at Leclerc to make use of the spotless facilities (this is Brittany after all) before ordering coffee and warm croissants in the cafeteria. (M. Leclerc is a Breton and opened his first ever shop in his native town of Landerneau. The company is now a massive supermarket chain across France and Spain.)
Landerneau is a very pleasant old town with streets of 17th and 18th century granite terraced houses and many larger granite buildings with wonderfully carved embellishments – mullioned windows, ornate facades and decorative finials.
The town sits astride one of the abers (deep-water inlets from the sea common around the coasts of Brittany). The neck of the aber is crossed by a mediaeval bridge linking the two parts of the town. It also marks the boundary between Leon and Cornouailles. The main part of the town lies along the Leon side of the aber and is significantly better cared for than across the water. The bridge itself is wonderfully attractive. Built in granite, in its time it ran a mill with an impressive leat as well as having houses built across its full length. When we crossed it looked just like any other street in the town, edged with small shops and restaurants.
On the Cornouailles side too there are some impressive granite buildings and an open square edged by small independent shops and a few terraced houses. What attracted us though was the church of St. Thomas, named after Thomas-à-Becket, with its high decorative clocher in pink granite and its water spouts designed to look like cannons, to channel rainwater from the roof away from the building. Next to it was the charnel house, so common to 17th century Breton churches, carved with granite human skulls. They were intended to house the bones of the dead.
As we looked a tiny lady darted out from one of the houses and asked us – or rather ordered us – to follow her into the church. She was a self-appointed and her enthusiasm was boundless! She took no prisoners when it came to speaking to the English, chattering on eagerly about the history of the building and explaining the hagiography of each of the 16th century polychrome oak-carved statues around the church. For a good hour she chattered away, darting about the church explaining the history and origin of the individual pieces – altar, rood screen, statues, stained glass, monuments, confessional and more. We learnt about a secret tunnel beneath the altar that emerged near the pizzeria a couple of streets away (handy!) and the destruction of the coats of arms over the tombs of the nobility during the French Revolution. Finally she asked us to sign her petition to the town council to encourage them to spend more restoring the church and the Cornouailles side of the town rather than everything going to the Leon side. She was a delightful lady who swept us along with her enthusiasm.
There is currently a week long Celtic festival taking part in Landerneau with music, dancing, workshops, concerts and lots of fun for visitors of all ages. The Dubliners are taking part – evidence of the strong Celtic links between Brittany and Ireland. The festival tent, next to the fairground on the banks of the aber was serving sausages and chips with wine or orange juice and ice cream for a few euros. So we dined sitting on long, wobbly benches at refectory tables in the festival beer tent, our sausages peeping out from beneath an enveloping blanket of mayonnaise and mustard.
Moving on, we drove northwards to Landiviseau, a pleasant enough Breton town but lacking the special charm of Landerneau. We did not linger long, choosing instead to take in just one of the parish closes, Lampaul-Guimiliau which we missed on our previous visit to the area when we wrote a special blog covering these stunning little granite churches in their walled enclosures. That account, linked below, explains, with photos, what these churches were and their purpose in 16th century Brittany when most of the population was unable to read or write. They are quite exceptional places, as unique to the history and popular culture of Brittany as were the painted monasteries, wooden churches and decoratively carved and brightly coloured crosses to Romania.
Mid-afternoon we drove back towards the north coast near Roscoff. Along the way we called off to see what might have happened to a little granite cottage purchased nearly twenty years ago by a young musician who used to teach our daughter Kate on the clarinet. We have lost touch over the years but had visited her a couple of times since she moved to France. Sadly, we found the house abandoned and derelict, all the windows broken, the shutters missing and the iron grill on the front door covered in rust. It had been a wonderful dream that obviously did not work out as she'd hoped.
Making our way westwards along the little coastal roads through the sandy dunes, stopping to explore granite headlands and sandy bays it took the rest of the afternoon to return to Guissény. Many of the coves and villages I used to visit with Danielle so it was a time of very happy memories tinged with sadness that they were now gone for ever. The dunes were full of wild flowers and spiky blue thistles – les chardons bleus, while the villages were a riot of colour from the large, blousy hydrangea bushes that crowd every corner with shades from deepest blue to pale pink, white, mauve and deep cerise. Monbretia, geraniums and towering holly hocks thrive in the sunny, breezy seaside gardens while high in the sky, almost too small to see, skylarks hover, singing their hearts out with their constant shrill cascade of sound.
On the long smooth sandy beaches young people race along on carts blown by a sail, a sport known as char-à-vol. This was our son Neil's favourite activity when he spent his school holidays here with Danielle's son Emmanuel. The bays are full of tiny beached fishing boats lying amidst the green seaweed waiting for the next tide and off shore there are hundreds of dangerous looking rocks, some so small they are covered between the tides by the sea, others big enough to wear a coat of grass and flowers, the dark protruding granite patched bright yellow by lichen.
Tonight, on this campsite at Guissény we are not much further east than we were last night but facing the sea on the opposite, north, coast. Here it is already completely dark at 11pm. Tomorrow is our last day before we take the ferry home. There are already so many things planned to do we'd best get some sleep now and make an early start.
Wednesday 13th July 2011 On bord the Armorique sailing from Roscoff to Plymouth
Nearly four months after we left England we are heading back home. Last night we slept on the deserted quayside at Roscoff waking this morning just as the overnight ferry arrived from England. Just over an hour later it was on its way back again with us on board. Today is Ian's birthday which, after hot showers in our free cabin, we celebrated with a British breakfast on board, tucking in to scrambled eggs, sausages, bacon, tomatoes, fried bread, baked beans and toast along with fresh orange juice and coffee! It may not be so bad to be home again!
Yesterday morning we left the ridiculously cheap (7.5euros) spotless, campsite in the dunes of Guissény and drove up into the town for the weekly street market selling fish, vegetables, cheeses and Celtic nic-nacs. Here we bought a triskel silver ring for Kate (she's been cutting the lawn for us) and more macaroons for Gladwys and Donatien.
Back at Joël's house we found him whistling happily in the garage as he measured a conger eel he'd caught in his lobster pot that morning. It was over a metre long and had found its way in chasing one of the lobsters he'd also caught. The jaws of a conger eel are lethal and somehow, from his bobbing boat, he'd had to get his hand into the pot and slip a knife between the top vertebrae of the spine to kill it before he could disentangle it from the pot. Meanwhile there were crabs and a lobster to contend with as well! Even after death the eel's reflexes still function and it continues to thrash around and snap for a while. Joël was delighted with it despite much of its length being too full of bones to be edible.
Stephan and family were still there and we all gathered for coffee around the long family table. Stephan is with the French army and the family is in the process of being transferred from Mayenne down to Agen near Toulouse, which is probably where we will next visit them.
Soon we said goodbye, always sad, and headed off to Lesneven to raid the wine store in Leclerc ready for our return home. During the afternoon we visited the nearby granite basilica at Le Folgoët with its stained glass windows dedicated to the local Breton saints, including St. Szeny, after whom Guissény is named.
Somehow we then got completely lost in the lanes of the Cote d'Amor driving between green hedges and fields of vegetables for ages with no sense of direction. It is just as bad as Ireland for leading travellers miles away from where they wish to be. In our case we intended heading towards Carentec and St. Pol-de-Léon. We managed to make it twice the official distance before we eventually found ourselves down beside the sea at Carentec. By this time the submersible path out to a couple of the small offshore islands had disappeared beneath the waves.
St. Pol-de-Léon is another pleasant seaside granite town right next to Roscoff. It has not only an impressive cathedral with two spires, but a huge church with an even taller spire. It was once a very wealthy little town.
We had been invited by Emmanuel to see the flat he bought shortly after Danielle died some four years ago and to have supper with him in a typical Breton pancake house. Emmanuel used to come to stay with us in Exeter as a teenager, to spend time with our children Neil and Kate and to improve his English. He is now a respected teacher and archivist in one of St. Pol's large colleges. We felt rather proud and emotional to see the success he is making of his life and to see how delighted he is with his flat, expressing his particular tastes with bright walls and contemporary paintings, but also traditional furniture from the Jura made by his grandfather, Danielle's father – including his favourite armchair.
After a guided tour of his home and an apero he drove us around the town pointing out features of interest and where he worked. At the pancake house we were served by one of his pupils on a vacation job which was quite amusing! Breton pancakes are delicious and come in hundreds of different forms. We started with savoury ones. Mine included coquille St. Jacques cooked in Armagnac on a pancake made from dark wheat with pink Breton onions and leeks. While my desert was a simple marmalade pancake, Ian and Emmanuel opted for frilly lace pancakes in tall glasses with homemade ice cream, local raspberries and Chantilly cream. Emmanuel then needed another with lemon and sugar to finish!
It was 11pm by the time we eventually bid Emmanuel farewell and headed for Roscoff. Darkness only really fell as we reached the port and settled for the night. Thank you Emmanuel for an unforgettable last evening to our epic continental journey. It has been a journey that has taken us from edge to edge of Europe, all the way to the Bosphorus in the East and back again to the Atlantic in the West. From Istanbul to the Pointe de St. Mathieu. On either side the next step would take us to new continents – and get our feet wet! Since retiring we've now finally touched on every country in Europe into which we are free to take Modestine! (Oh no! We've just realised we've overlooked Iceland and Malta!)
Thank you too Joël and Stephane for your usual wonderful, friendly Breton hospitality. It has been the perfect climax to four months of travel when every day has bought new experiences and adventures!
We were back in Exeter by mid afternoon. It was still Ian's birthday. In the evening we joined Kate for a celebration supper in the courtyard of Ask, one of Exeter's very pleasant old restaurants on the Cathedral green.
For how long can we settle back into our home in Exeter before Modestine is twitching to be on the road again? Long enough certainly to see our family and friends again, to see how our granddaughters have grown and visit the new home in Beverley where Neil and family have moved while we have been away.
Journey time 24th March – 13th July 2011
Statistics Mileage taking the interesting route rather than the quickest route from Exeter to Turkey and back =7,269 miles.
Parish enclosures, Brittany See Thursday 26th July 2007